Little recognition in the Western media has been accorded to the greatest single demonstration of the democratic process, the Indian general election, which will conclude the casting of ballots next week. The electorate is technically about 650 million people, and India is the second most populous country in the world and a relatively quickly rising economic and military power. Unlike China, it is an extremely ethnically and culturally diverse country, with scores of sects, castes, and cultures, severe religious divisions, and is notoriously dysfunctional in many respects. Though predominantly a Hindu country, India is the third largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan, (with approximately 160 million Muslims), and even has about 30 million practising Christians.
The likely winner of the election, Narendra Modi, is credited with leading the state of Gujarat, in his 13 years as chief minister, to a new plateau of economic growth and efficiency. Gujarat, on the Indian Ocean and the Pakistani border, is a state of 60 million people, about nine per cent Muslim and 80 per cent Hindu, and was the native state of the founders of both India and Pakistan, Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Modi has achieved agricultural growth rates of about ten per cent, and industrial growth rates of 14 per cent, through an ambitious program of privatization, down-sizing government, spurring the legendarily bureaucratized Indian public sector to be more responsive, and sponsoring vast irrigation and hydro-electric projects that have enabled the production of higher quality cotton in steadily larger quantities, and the transmission of electricity to almost all residential areas of the state.
Modi was strenuously criticized for what was judged insufficient attention to sectarian tensions in 2002, resulting in anti-Muslim rioting in which between one and two thousand people died. He has strenuously denied those charges and was cleared by a special investigation by the state supreme court. But the stigma still pursues him, a little like the allegations against the late Ariel Sharon of having been complicit through negligence in the massacre of Arab Muslims in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon in 1982.
The Indian public has clearly tired of the complacent incumbency and inertia of the governing Congress Party, founded by Jawaharlal Nehru, led by him and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and later Nehru's grandson Rajiv Gandhi, and now by Rajiv's son Rahul, under the guidance, as party chairman, of Rajiv's Italian and Roman Catholic widow, Sonia Gandhi. Congress has governed India, either alone, or at the head of coalitions, for 54 of India's 67 years of independence.
Nehru, with Mahatma Gandhi and Jinnah, led the agitation for Indian independence from Britain, and then was co-founder of the international neutralist movement with the disparate collaboration of such singular autocrats as Yugoslavia's Marshal Josip Broz Tito, Egypt's President Gamel Abdul Nasser, and Indonesia's charlatan president Kusno Sukarno. Nehru and his daughter both professed to enjoy some moral exaltedness because of the supposed spirituality of India, despite its unspeakable poverty and general incoherence.
Winston Churchill, who had happily imprisoned Nehru and the Mahatma, and disparaged them as rabble-rousers and Nazi sympathizers (with some justification), in his second term as prime minister greeted Nehru at a Commonwealth conference as "the light of Asia." This was the usual flattery of the British upper classes of panjandrums from the current or former Empire, but it was true in the one sense that India has, in its fashion, continued uninterruptedly as a democracy. This, an independent judiciary, and widespread use of the English language, are its compensating assets opposite the almost unitary Han Chinese.
The rivalry with China torqued up after Deng Xiao-ping propelled China forward on its radical economic modernization, causing the latter Congress Party to adopt a policy of private sector economic stimulation unprecedented in India's history. This did generate economic growth rates of up to ten per cent, but could not cure Congress of the self-indulgent disingenuousness of decades of entitled power. Where China is thrashing out changes of leadership in murky purges and trials, India is, with elephantine ponderousness, effecting a democratic change.
India is a nuclear power, 74 per cent of its 1.2 billion people are literate, and about the same percentage is above the United Nations' poverty line of a threadbare $1.25 of income per day, which still leaves 300 million people in grinding poverty. The economy has quadrupled in size in 20 years, since the old Nehru-Gandhi model of a completely inert, no-growth economy finally collapsed in 1991, shortly after the Chinese abandoned the nostrums of Maoist economics and plunged into red-blooded capitalism. The Indian GDP is now $1.8 trillion, eleventh in the world, but $4.6 trillion in purchasing power parity, a figure exceeded by only the U.S. and China.
Modi is running as the candidate who will replicate throughout the country the economic growth rates he has produced for 13 years in Gujarat, which with only five per cent of India's population, now produces 25 per cent of its exports. As he seems almost certain to take office with a heavy mandate, the world is entitled to consider the implications if Modi does, as he promises, Thatcherize the Indian government and economy. Twelve years of double digit economic growth would make India a mighty power in the world and change the world's strategic balance, opposite China, Russia and the Muslim world. This is neither a remote, nor an unfavourable prospect.
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